Saturday, September 16, 2006

The Food of La Varenne

Thursday, September 15, 2006: We are assembled in the kitchen at La Varenne for our final master class with Anne Willan. We watch transfixed as Chef Randall simmers half-cut apples in butter and sugar until they are the color of mahogany for Tart Tartin, the French upside down apple cake. With elegant, precise motions, Ann demonstrates the preparation of the classic French pastry dough to top, or “bottom” the Tart Tartin – pate brise.

We divide into teams to prepare the lunch menu and several of us take on the individual spinach soufflés. We chopped spinach and onion extremely fine and whip egg whites into snowy, stiff peaks in enormous copper bowls using whisks with handles as long as flag polls. We fold the eggs whites into the spinach mixture, creating a billowy light-emerald froth. We watch the individual soufflés puff high in the oven, developing that distinctive stovepipe shape.

Over lunch, Anne mentions that the soufflés taste “just the way they’re supposed to.” It is high praise, indeed, for a group of aspiring gourmands. As we linger over lunch, she tells us stories of the classic French chefs – La Varenne, who created the great French cookbook, the famous Escoffier, who named his signature dishes after celebrities and Julia Child’s misadventures on live TV.

In the evening, we meet in the salon at 7:00 for our final toast and are each given a diploma – the Certificat Culinaire. Shortly thereafter we depart for nearby Joigny for dinner at the three-star restaurant La Cote St. Jacques. The meal is a supreme theatrical production, with exquisite crystal, one-of-a-kind china, more service staff than I can count, and about a dozen different food masterpieces from the tiny to the decadent. The standouts include a dark black pudding – sliced in medallions over mashed potatoes and apples – that is as delicate as a mousse, escargot with woody chanterelle mushrooms, tiny gnocchi and parsley cream, and a Burgundy chicken, cooked in a crock wrapped in pastry dough to seal in the moisture and flavor. Once cooked, the chicken is dressed with petite zucchini, potatoes and carrots cut the size of small pearls and a light champagne cream sauce. It is exquisite in its simplicity.

It has been an extraordinary week in Burgundy, learning from a culinary legend, eating fine food and cooking and dining with a memorable cast of characters. It is hard to leave the French countryside, but Florence beckons.

© 2006 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

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